House setting own agenda

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AUSTIN – While the Texas Senate is speeding through approving the governor’s conservative special session bills, lawmakers across the Capitol rotunda are taking their time and setting their own agenda on their own pace, much to the ire of tea party Republicans.

The Republican-led House has filed more than 300 bills this special session, including numerous bills on topics outside Gov. Greg Abbott 20-point list of measures he’d like the Legislature to pass.

Rep. Tony Tinderholt, an Arlington Republican and tea party ally, urged House Speaker Joe Straus to keep those extraneous measures from being getting further consideration, saying that taking them up amounts to “mucking up” the special session. Lawmakers are limited to passing bills that pertain to the governor’s special session call, which this summer includes property tax reform, several abortion restricts, curbing local government regulations and several issues related to teachers and education.

Straus, a San Antonio Republican who was less than enthused about returning for a special session, defended advancing several unrelated bills through the legislative process, contending that the governor could expand his agenda during the special session as he sees fit.

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The House has slow-walked the beginning of the special session, having given initial approval of the governor’s must-pass bill to extend operations of the Texas Medical Board and other agencies until Monday, although the Senate had passed that bill last Thursday and hopes to pass bills codifying the governor’s agenda early this week.

‘Lawful but awful’

House committees began hearing bills in earnest Monday, including the Public Education Committee, which considered legislation that would revise the state’s beleaguered school funding formula that lawmakers have referred to as “lawful but awful.”

The issue was added to the governor’s agenda last week, allowing Rep. Dan Huberty, a Republican from Humble, to revise a similar bill passed by the House that died during the regular session due to political maneuvering.

“This is a first step in fixing the school finance system, which we haven’t done … in 30 years,” said Huberty, chairman of the committee. “We’re here, by God, we’re going to give it a shot.”

House Bill 21 would add $1.9 billion into public education, increasing the basic amount of money set aside for each student to $5,140 per from $4,765, while offering more money for students with dyslexia or who are learning English as a second language.

The bill includes a two-year cushion for school districts losing money from the expiration of Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction, a provision that disappears this year. HB21 also reduces payments property-wealthy school districts like Houston Independent School Districts make to the state by $390 million over the next biennium and allocates $25 million for charter school facilities.

‘It is kind of the dream bill’

HB21 was met with mixed reviews Monday, with several education groups voicing general support for the proposal but opposing giving money to charter schools.

The committee heard other bills that fall within the governor’s call, but several include pricey ambitions the governor is unlikely to approve. One such bill is House Bill 258, which would pour $14 billion into schools and would dole out more money for each student receiving bilingual education, special education and other designations.

“It is kind of the dream bill for a lot of our constituencies,” said Rep. Mary Gonzalez, a Democrat from Clint. The bill would also provide tax relief and reduce payments that property-wealthy districts pay back to the state.

Another bill would increase the amount of money the state spends on each student enrolled in bilingual education. The result would pour $1.8 billion into schools, largely to serve students learning English as a second language.

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